Walking for Rhythm – Finding the step, step, step, step

I find walking rhythmic.

The step, step, step, step of a potter from somewhere to nowhere moves from my feet to my lungs.

In my lungs the step, step, step, step says “in, out, in, out”.

The in, out, in, out of my lungs say to my heart “pump-pump, pump-pump, pump-pump, pump-pump”.

Somehow that rhythm says to the rest of my body “calm, calm, calm, calm”.

When I’m walking up a particularly steep bit of a hill I’ll count each step in a rhythm – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 1, 2, 3… – continuing my progress, slowly, and rhythmically. When my body says that it’s time to stop I’ll make myself continue to the end of the current set of 10 almost likes it’s a bar in music. When it’s really, really steep I’ll make myself stop every two or three sets just to keep the rhythm.

Step, step, step, step.

One of the reasons that I avoid the very popular mountain paths where it’s become necessary to put in rock steps is because the uneven rocks destroy the rhythm, particularly coming down hill. It’s difficult to keep with the beat when you have to measure your every step.

In, out, in, out.

My working life has very little rhythm to it, each day the meetings, the conversations and the emails are all on different topics. A working day is really a set of interruptions, even in meetings it’s difficult not to get interrupted. Sometimes the stack of interruptions gets so high that I forget what the one at the bottom is. Then when the interruptions stop for a few minutes I don’t know what to do because the rhythm has been reduced to a cacophony. At times like this a few minutes walking reminds my whole being of the days rhythm and the calm returns, I’m far more productive in the calm.

Pump-pump, pump-pump, pump-pump, pump-pump.

A joys of a walk before work is knowing that I start the day with a tempo set by the steps I’ve already invested. While I try to make my morning walk stretching I deliberately avoid rushing it, I like to feel the beat. Days without a walk always feel a bit discordant.

Calm, calm, calm, calm.

The daily rhythms build into weekly rhythms.

The weekly rhythms build into seasonal rhythms.

Perhaps we’ll come back to that.

How can you explain that you need to know that the trees are still there, and the hills and the sky? Anyone knows they are. How can you say it is time your pulse responded to another rhythm, the rhythm of the day and the season instead of the hour and the minute? No, you cannot explain. So you walk.

Author unknown, from New York Times editorial, “The Walk,” 25 October 1967

Walking? Why walking?

We have recently been on holiday in a beautiful part of England. It’s a place steeped in history with an abundance of places to walk. While we’ve been out and about I’ve been pondering what it is about walking that I love some much.

As I’ve mused I’ve realised how important walking is to me. I’m currently 90% of the way through a challenge to climb all of the hills in the Lake District that are chronicled in the books by Arthur Wainwright. There are 214 hills in this list and I’m down to the last 19. I do most of these walks on my own and whatever the weather I love it. I have no idea how many hours I have spent on this venture, but it’s a lot.

Most weeks I go out for a walk before work on at least three days. One of the privileges of my life is the ability to walk. This privilege is multiplied when the walking is in the countryside, something I can do from my house. If I walk a little way down my street there is a gap in the houses and a path. The path drops down to another path that runs alongside a brook. From this starting point the choices of route multiply like the branches on a tree.

Walking is so natural to many of us that we barely give it a thought. We put one step in front of another and move from one place to another. Sometimes I walk with a purpose, but more often I walk to walk, it’s the walking that is the reward.

Although walking is, for me at least, an ordinary activity I still love it, and that’s what I’ve been pondering? Why do I love walking? Why do I get out of bed on a cold, wet, dark morning, put on my waterproof clothing and walk with a smile on my face? I’ve never really given it much thought before, and I’ve not really written about it, so perhaps it’s time that I did.

Header Image: This is Embleton Bay looking towards Dunstanburgh Castle taken on a late afternoon walk during our recent holiday.

I’m reading… “Time and How to Spend It” by James Wallman

I really liked this book, it met so many of the criteria for a good book for me:

I like books with practical advice that is communicated as principles rather than prescriptions.

I like books with stories, we are made to remember stories.

I like books based on evidence, particularly when the author acknowledges that the evidence is indicative rather than definitive.

I’ve spent much of my life with a couple of quotations about time ringing through my head:

“Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.”

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Which I didn’t realise until writing this post was simply an extension of Albert Einstein’s quotation “Time is an illusion”.

“The future is something which everyone reaches at the rate of sixty minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.”

C.S. Lewis

These two quotations are, in some regards, contradictory. Time can’t be both an illusion and a constant ticking of minutes and yet, for me, this contradiction speaks volumes. We each have the same number of minutes in a day, that is true, and yet, each of us recognises that how we use those minutes greatly influences how we perceive our day. The spending of minutes is where this book is focused, but not where most of this type of book focus their study, on our work life and how to get ahead, this book is primarily targeted at all that time you have when you aren’t working.

James Wallman begins Time and How To Spend It with a couple of quotations:

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

Annie Dillard

“Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.”

William Penn

How do you spend your time? Yes, you spend a lot of it asleep and, probably, another huge section at that thing you call work, but what about the remaining minutes? Have you ever received any training on how to spend that other time? Do you know what type of activity in your free time would enrich the whole of your life? How do you avoid those times where you feel like you’ve wasted your time? How do you get the best value out of your free time? Can you really call time free?

As I look around my friends, acquaintances and colleagues I see so many different ways that people use the free time that they have. Some people appear to achieve so much and have such amazing experiences while others have little to show for the time that they have spent. What are the things that separate these two extremes? Does it matter? Well it does if we can enrich our whole life and even extend them by investing our time in particular ways.

James Wallman’s hypothesis is precisely that, apply a set of principles to spending our leisure time will greatly enrich our lives.

The reality is, though, that many of us have a very uneasy relationship with the free time that we have. A quotation from the opening chapter of the book:

“The popular assumption is that no skills are involved in enjoying free time, and that anybody can do it. Yet the evidence suggests the opposite: free time is more difficult to enjoy than work. Having leisure at one’s disposal does not improve the quality of life unless one knows how to use it effectively, and it is by no means something one learns automatically.”

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Why are we so uneasy, particularly now? This is a summary of the reasons that James Wallmam gives:

  • We are earning more which makes the cost of time seem higher and feel more scarce.
  • We think that busyness is status.
  • We have too many incoming messages and too many demands on our time.
  • Instead of helping, multitasking creates ‘contaminated time’.
  • We have more opportunities than ever – endlessly scrolling online, more new places to go and events to attend – and end up feeling FOMO (fear of missing out).
  • Smartphones and all of our digital devices now eat around 60% of our leisure time.
  • Leisure isn’t taught, and has become trivialised, belittled.

James Wallman likens the different ways that we spend time to the different foods that we eat, some foods being empty-calories, like all of that endless scrolling, and others being super-foods, like a walk with a close friend along a beach. The aim of the book being to teach us how to recognise and consume super-food experiences rather than flopping into an empty-calorie existence.

The structure of the book is based on an acrostic of the word STORIES with each of the letters highlighting a characteristic of great experiences:

  • Story – understanding the hero’s journey and what makes a great story.
  • Transformation – creating personal growth leads to happiness.
  • Outside and Offline – there’s huge power in being outside and away from all of those interruptions.
  • Relationships – loneliness isn’t healthy, we are made to do things together.
  • Intensity – this is about flow, which is a huge subject in its own right.
  • Extraordinary – creating a balance between novel and ordinary experiences.
  • Status and Significance – creating significance by investing in others.

With a combination of stories, evidence and anecdote each of these chapters creates a set of principles that define those super-food experiences.

I normally leave this bit until the end, but it’s appropriate here:

Header Image: Today’s header image was taken on a recent holiday when I was contemplating many of the principles in this book.

The picture was taken at the Low Wood Bay, Windermere, UK – this place has been a special place in Sue and I’s lives for over 30 years, so returning was extending an already significant story in our lives.

We are stood on a jetty from where we left our wedding reception in a speedboat. As with the day of this picture, it had been a lovely day that we would remember for the rest of our lives. There are many parts of that day that I don’t remember the detail of, but I remember the feeling of stepping into a speedboat that had been kindly decorated by the staff with trailing buoys and a Just Married poster. We kept this part of our wedding a secret, so it was a surprise to nearly everyone and the look on their faces as we zoomed off across the lake is etched into my memory.

Having taken a few picture we put out phones away and we stood and remembered, together, outside, in a kind of flow as we thought about our children, the things we had enjoyed together and the blessing of seeing them both in loving relationships of their own. We thought about some of the adventures that we had been on and looked forward to adventures to come, even the very next day. We looked across the lake at the beauty of it all and held hands.

We used STORIES to extend and enrich our story.

For a slightly longer summary of the information in the book the following is a good podcast:

I’m reading… “Nonviolent Communication – A Language for Life” by Marshall B. Rosenberg

I’m always on the look out for books that people are reading and finding helpful, interesting, entertaining, etc. Sometimes people recommend something to me, at other times I see a video or a talk by someone and decide to read their book. I found this one via a different route.

One of the subjects that I find interesting is organisational change, particularly in large organisation. The change at Microsoft since Satya Nadella become CEO has been on of the most dramatic organisational changes in recent years. I read his book Hit Refresh a little while ago and was fascinated by the definition of the organisation as a group of warring factions. What I missed from that book and only understood later on was that he had made his entire leadership team read a book as part of changing the warring factions situation – Nonviolent Communication is that book.

This isn’t a new book having been first published in 1999 based on research and experience that dates back to the 1960s. Nor is this a “Business Management” book of the type that you may expect the leader of a large enterprise to be giving out. This book isn’t a business management book at all, really, it would be better to describe it as a “tools for life” book.

As the name suggests this is a book about communication, another subject that has fascinated me for a very long time.

As the introduction to the book says:

“NVC (Nonviolent Communication) is founded on language and communication skills that strengthen our ability to remain human, even under trying conditions. it contains nothing new; all that has been integrated into NVC has been known for centuries. The intent is to remind us about what we already know – about how we humans were meant to relate to one another – and to assist us in living in a way that concretely manifests this knowledge.”

Nonviolent Communications – A Way to Focus Attention

In these posts I normally give a bit of an overview of the book; I’m not going to do that this time because this is a book that deserves to be read and not consumed as a summary.

The other thing I normally do is provide some personal observations; I’m not going to do that either. Many of my personal observations are very personal and require a bit longer to become part of who I am before I write about the. What I will say is that reading through this book has helped me to see a number of things that I do when I communicate that I need to change, it’s also given me some tools to make those changes.

What I will do is to say what this book isn’t. This book isn’t a how-to prescriptive manual for counselling conversation, although much of what is in the book would be helpful for those situations. Neither is it a book of listening skills, although it includes many great insights on how to be a great listener. It’s not even a manual on how to be politically correct, although some of the examples could be read that way if you were so inclined. This book isn’t just about giving good communication, it’s also about receiving it well.

I started reading this book part way through a series of posts that in my head is called “fascinating conversations”. Once I’d started reading this book I felt that I needed to finish it before continuing those posts for fear of simply adding to my catalogue of poor behaviour. I haven’t yet decided whether I will restart those posts, I probably will, but I need to change some of the language.

Having read it I can understand why Satya Nadella made it mandatory reading for his leadership team.

Running in Dark Mode all Day

It’s likely that most of the apps that you use have a white (or light) background with black (or dark) text. It’s also likely that the operating system capabilities that you use also has this configuration.

This is the default after all and why would you change it?

You may have gone to the effort of changing the colour scheme a little, but it’s probably still got a light background and dark text.

I’ve recently taken the step of reversing this on many apps and some operating systems as a bit of an experiment. My screen world is now predominantly dark – dark background with light text.

Why? There are a few reasons, but mostly it’s about personal taste and visual preferences:

  • Eye Fatigue – When you are looking into a screen you are looking into a light. It may only be a low intensity light, but it’s still a light. Using dark mode reduces the amount of light and hence, hopefully, the levels of eye fatigue. Some people claim a scientific justification for this, but the research I could find was quite limited. I find it easier on the eye and that’s good enough for me.
  • Reduced Blue Light – Of the light that your screen is emitting the blue light is probably the most destructive. It’s thought that this type of light impacts our ability to sleep, and that we should reduce the amount of blue light before we go to bed. My logic goes like this, if I don’t need it in the evening, why would I need more of it than my surroundings are providing it in the daytime?
  • Readability – This is a subjective one, I find light text on a dark background easier to read.
  • Reduced Distraction – Using dark mode reduces the intensity of many of the interface elements. Things like window borders and app icons are not as highlighted and hence grab less attention. At the same time, the elements that I am working on – the words and diagrams – stand out more and draw my attention.
  • Reduced Power Consumption – This is a tenuous one, dark mode uses slightly less power to light the screen and hence it improves battery life on a device. I suspect that the difference here is marginal, but what it has allowed me to do is to lower the light levels on my iPhone extending the battery life by a little.

There are some drawbacks though:

  • It’s not the Default – Because Dark Mode isn’t the default for operating systems or for applications, you have to choose it. My experience has been that some applications will take the preference from the operating system, but not all of them will. Some apps provide an option which you then have to find.
  • Web Sites – The real challenge is web sites, it takes far too much effort to switch over to dark mode in each of these. I’ve tried a few plug-ins for browsers, but have concluded that the glitches are worse than just letting the web sites display in light mode.
  • Mixed Mode – Because it’s not the default it’s not always possible to work in dark mode in every application, and certainly not on every web site. The challenge with this is that you then get the rather jarring experience of switching between an app that is in dark mode and another that it in light mode. On balance, though, I think I prefer this experience to the default one. I’d call myself a lightweight dark mode user.
  • iOS Dark Mode – My primary smartphone is an iPhone. The iOS interface doesn’t really have a dark mode. You can use the accessibility features to invert the colours which is supposed to be smart enough to only invert the colours of the text, but it also has an annoying habit of inverting the colours of all of the images. Having said that, once you switch apps to dark mode it’s surprising to realise how little of the actual iOS interface you see day to day. Yesterday, Apple announced that iOS 13 will have a dark mode.

All I need, now, is for each of the apps that I use to give me the option to change, or better still, to take the default settings from the operating system. I suspect that web sites are always going to be, by default, in light mode, but perhaps a time is coming when they will pick up the correct mode from the browser that is being used.

As part of this experiment I’ve switched this web site over to a dark colour scheme and even there I’ve had some glitches to deal with, some of which still aren’t resolved.

Many people see dark mode as a way of making the nighttime visual experience better, but I’ve been using dark mode all day every day. I started this as an experiment a few weeks ago, I wasn’t expecting it to make much difference, but it has made a far greater difference than I was expecting.

I’m not advocating that everyone moves because I think that it’s primarily an issue of personal preference, but you might like to give it a try.

Header Image: This is Traigh a Bhaigh, Vatersay in the Outer Hebrides. Apparently this is how you park a boat around here.

My Tools: Microsoft To-Do

My productivity regime is an example of continuous learning. It doesn’t stay the same for very long and is regularly changed a bit here and there. Within my productivity practices task management has been an area in need of improvement for some time as the working context has changed.

There was a time when I could use my inbox as my list of outstanding activities, but that’s no longer the case as activities get assigned to me in various different ways and from different tools.

I have tried for a little while managing my tasks in each of the various tools, but that become cumbersome. I also tried various methods of copying activity descriptions to a central tool and then working there, the problem with this was that I still needed to keep the various sources synchronised as the status and priority changes.

The latest incarnation of my tasks management activities utilises Microsoft To-Do. I looked at To-Do when it was first launched because I’ve previously used Wunderlist, which Microsoft purchased. In those early days I couldn’t see what I was getting and it was all a bit rudimentary, I expected this to changed, but it didn’t change for what seemed like a very long time.

Recently though, To-Do has hit the accelerator on useful capabilities and my use of it has increased significantly.

The two main features that have made the difference being:

  • Flagged email – Emails that I flag in Outlook get automatically replicated into a folder in To-Do where I can work on them and flag them as completed. This is a two-way synchronisation – if it’s flagged complete in To-Do it’s flagged complete in Outlook and vice versa.
  • Assigned to Me – if a task is assigned to me in Planner it also appears in To-Do. Again this is a two-way synchronisation.

The activities that I place directly into To-Do are also synchronised into Outlook Tasks, but I don’t think that this has had a significant impact on my productivity because I’ve never managed my Tasks in Outlook Tasks and don’t think I’m going to start.

Assigned and Flagged in Microsoft To-Do

I have always flagged emails in Outlook as a way of sorting through the dross to find the things requiring my attention. The task of Flagging an email is done via an Outlook Quick Step which also moves the email into a separate folder and marks it as read. I have another Quick Step that moves emails that require no action to a different folder and marks them as read. These are both assigned a keyboard shortcut so that I can progress through my inbox without leaving the keyboard.

Now that tasks from emails, tasks from Planner and my own defined tasks are in To-Do I’ve found myself using To-Do as the mechanism for planning my day, adding and removing things from the My Day plan. My daily plan still takes place on a piece of paper, but that’s because my daily plan isn’t just about tasks. The tasks are increasingly managed in To-Do.

This still isn’t an absolutely ideal situation because I also get assigned activities via a Jira corporate project management capability, but it’s a lot better than it used to be. Perhaps I should raise a suggestion for the To-Do team to work with Atlassion on that.

Looking forward to what new capabilities the To-Do team have for us.

It’s my Blog Birthday | 12 today

This is blog post number 2027.

Blog post number 1 occured on 4th Aprill 2005 without a fanfare and without any real content. I had no idea what I was doing back then, and I’m still not really sure, but I’ve learnt a lot along the way.

I mostly blog for myself, but I do hope that it’s of value to those of you that read it. Having said that, it is interesting to see what people do read, so I thought I would share the all-time Top 10:

  1. Office Speak: “Sharpen Your Pencil”
  2. Add a Third Time-Zone to your Outlook Calendar
  3. The British, the Queue and the Tut
  4. Office Speak: Greenfielding
  5. Count Your Blessings #120 – Short Stories
  6. Office Speak: “Can you please go on mute” – “PLEASE GO ON MUTE”
  7. Office Speak: One Throat to Choke
  8. Productive Workplace: Design Mindset Spaces
  9. The Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale (BFAS)
  10. “If everyone has to think outside the box, maybe…

Header Image: This lane is often part of my morning walk which is often the place where an idea for a blog gets formulated.